While technically located in setagaya ward, this laidback bohemian district is just a three-minute train ride from shibuya and absolutely worth a detour. This neighborhood, after all, is regularly voted by local youth as one of the top-three places where they would like to live in tokyo. This is the place, by the way, where all the characters in the someday’s dreamers manga anime series live. Shimo-kitazawa is somewhat similar to ura-harajuku because many of the streets surrounding the station are so narrow only pedestrians are allowed. But while harajuku is an attention-grabbing world stage where people go to see and be seen, shimo-kitazawa belongs to an older counter-cultural era when students and intellectuals were more interested in stage theater and live music. Even today the area is famous for its month-long theater festival, held in february at the historic honda gekijo and seven other small venues just a few minutes from the station. Indie music is still big too, as can be seen by the many live houses (small concert halls) and second-hand record shops dotting the area. And if you happen to visit in july, you will be able to enjoy the local music festival, with most of the action happening in the streets. But even if you are not into stage performance, live music or smoky cafes, this is definitely a neighborhood worth checking out. Thrift and vintage clothes stores are other famous features in the neighborhood, and among them you will find a few otaku-friendly places selling new and old manga, toys, figures and character goods.
Finding your way around Shimo-Kitazawa can be rather tricky, especially when you visit for the first time, as the place is a maze of narrow winding streets. But that’s part of the fun. After leaving the station at the North Exit, we go left. At the end of this street, on the left corner, we find Swing Toys. Strictly speaking this shop doesn’t belong in this guide as we only cover made-in-Japan products, but if you are into Marvel, South Park, Disney, Gremlins, etc., you may want to check it out. Here you will find Star Wars and Simpsons tote bags, Batman candy trays, minion cushions and glassware sets, troll dolls, and lots of Toy Story items. Turn right at the T-junction, away from the station. This is a typical Shimo-Kita neighborhood with several cafes and vintage clothes shops on both sides of the streets. Walk straight for 10 minutes. When you reach an intersection with a Lawson on the right corner, turn left. Look for a nondescript gray building on the left side of the street with the sign コミケットサービス on the second floor. That’s Comiket Service. It’s true there are a number of shops where you can buy the dojin goods sold at the biannual Comic Market, but if you want to go to the source, this is it. This place is very small and looks even smaller because of all the boxes jammed in the aisles between the shelves. Still, they stock 200,000 items (mainly secondhand dojinshi) including indie anime, games, novels and much more. The shop is sometimes closed irregularly so you may want to check their website or call in advance.
Keep walking about 150 meters in the same direction and just before you reach the intersection with the big arch you can see a small shop on the right whose door sports the word 悪童処 written in big yellow characters. That’s Warugaki Salon, arguably one of the weirdest, funkiest shops in Shimo-Kita. If you can read Japanese, you will find the place’s description on the door which says mayonaka no dagashiya i.e. “late night dagashi shop”. Dagashi of course are cheap old-style sweets and junk food (they are often featured in older manga and such anime as Chibi Maruko-chan and Sazae-san) and the “late-night” bit means that the shop does not open until the sun goes down. So if you happen to visit the neighborhood earlier in the day, you can save yourself the long track from the station. On the other hand, if you are a nighthawk, this shop definitely deserves a visit as it sells old-fashioned toys as well (dolls, playing cards, badges, stickers, tabletop games, etc.), starting with a wide selection of Doraemon figures and dolls. The owner, Higashikujo-san, is a natural-born storyteller and horse-racing expert, and if you speak Japanese you may find yourself spending the night listening to his tall stories.
Next we retrace our steps, go past Lawson, and take the third street on the right. After passing Mos Burger, there’s a shop called Zappas on the right. Natsukashiya is on the second floor. This place literally smells of old. In business since 1981, its name means “nostalgic shop” and all its cabinets and shelves are packed with toys and other cultural detritus from the past. Most of the space is taken by old tin and plastic toys, mainly from the ‘50s and ‘60s (including a fair share of monsters and dolls like Pekochan) but there’s a lot more, and you will be endlessly fascinated by its eclectic collection of posters, magazines, clocks and funky ashtrays.
Our next destination is located south of the railway. Cross the tracks, walk under the arch and go straight. You will see the Village Vanguard red neon sign on the right. VV calls itself an “exciting book store,” but this chain actually sells a lot more, from otaku goods (toys, character T-shirts, anime, etc.) to wigs, clocks and junk food. Their stock is so random you can find Gothic paraphernalia sharing space with lava lamps. There are about 30 VV branches in Tokyo alone (each one with a slightly different stock and atmosphere) but the one in Shimo-Kitazawa is particularly recommended, with a larger-than-average collection of new and vintage manga that runs the gamut from a boxed set of Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to several books by comic maverick author Maruo Suehiro. In the same neighborhood there’s also a VV Diner.
Keep going in the same direction and take the first right. Pass under the other train line and walk straight ahead until you see a couple of Dorama shops on your right. This chain of used video games, trading cards, CDs and DVDs has several branches in Shimo-Kita. Two of them are specialized in secondhand books, magazines, and comics, and three more are game arcades full of UFO Catcher (check the website for details). In the first backstreet on the right past Dorama, you’ll find Sunny. From the outside this two-story shop looks very small but inside it’s packed from floor to ceiling with toys. The first floor is mainly about model kits (tanks, planes, etc.) while the second floor has lots of figures and other toys (both foreign and Japanese products like new Bandai releases), all neatly packaged in their boxes.
Now back to the Dorama street, turn right and follow that road as it winds through the neighborhood until you reach a fork. Go left, then right at the Youkaen flower shop. 20 more meters and you’ll reach Omu-rice, our last destination. In business since 1988, for some reason (maybe because it’s a little off the beaten track?) this vintage toy store is less known than Natsukashiya, but it has a lot (I mean a lot) more stuff for sale. There is a little bit of everything, and its prices are quite good.